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Egypt: Christian Ruins of the Kharga Oasis in Egypt's Western Desert


Christian Ruins in the Kharga Oasis
by Jimmy Dunn


While Egypt's Eastern Desert is very famous for its several well known Monasteries, including that of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, Egypt's Western Oasis served both as a remote haven for early Christians and Kharga specifically, as a place where Christian church leaders were sometimes banished when their views were considered to be unacceptable. Today we may find some of Egypt's earliest Christian monuments in the remote regions, and because of the dry climate, often in a decent state of preservation.

The Christian Remains in the Kharga Oasis

Christianity was probably introduced to the Kharga Oasis in the latter half of the 3rd Century or the beginning of the 4th century.

Athanasius

There were a number of important, early Christian leaders who were banished to the Kharga Oasis, especially during the 4th and 5th centuries, for a period of years. Saint Athanasius was sent to the Oasis, but it was probably Nestorius who made the largest impact within the local Christian community. However, though tradition links the local Christians to Nestorius, it is likely that it was more of an isolated enclave of Christians that included both Orthodox and many forms of heteordox Christians.

The Council of Ephesus in 431 denounced Nestorius. He had built upon the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), from north of Antioch, who saw sin as a weakness instead of a disease or tainted will. Nestorius was accused of the heresy that portrayed Christ's death on the cross as only the suffering of his human half. Likewise, Nestorius saw Mary as the Mother of Jesus and not the the Mother of the "Son of God."

He was first exiled to a monastery near Antioch, but that did not silence his teachings. One tradition reported by Moffett was that he was a gifted orator with a "beautiful voice and fluent phrases." He was then banished to Petra (in Jordan) and finally to the Kharga Oasis (in Egypt). Each move took him to deeper isolation.

The Kharga Museum

The Kharga Museum is located in Qasr Kharga. Christian artifacts are located on the second floor of the Kharga Museum The consist of three sections. These include Coptic textiles on three panels dated from the seventh to the ninth centuries and icons from the eighteen century in wood, all of which are on loan from the Coptic Museum in Cairo. There are also a section of Coptic Christian books.

Near of Qasr Kharga

The Church in the Temple of Hibis



Near the Necropoliis of al-Bagawat is perhaps the best known monument in the Kharga Oasis, the Temple of Hibis. Built by Darius I (about 521 BC) and added to by Darius II, it was later restored by Nectanebo (378-60 BC, and represents the only Persian temple we know of in Egypt.

However, soon after it was abandoned by the pagan priests, a Christian church was erected against the structure's north side of the portico. This probably took place in the first part of the 4th century. Unfortunately, its destruction probably was at the hands of the Blemmyes who invaded Egypt and sacked the temple in about 450 AD. At that time the Blemmyes carried off a large number of prisoners, including Nestorius himself. Within the temple itself, there are only two inscriptions that specifically refer to this ancient church.

The Necropolis of al-Bagawat

Probably the most significant Christian remains in any of the Western Oasis are those of the Necropolis of al-Bagawat in the Kharga Oasis, yet these ruins actually predate Christianity and consist of both pagan and Christian temples, chapels and burials. They date from between the 2nd and 6th centuries.However, this is considered to be one of the earliest and best preserved Christian cemeteries in the world.

The ruins are situated on the slopes of Gabal al-Tayr, about one and a half kilometers from the only known Persian Temple in Egypt, Hibis. The necropolis covers an area of about five hundred meters in length and two hundred meters wide. The main entrance to al-Bagawat is at the south side. There are some 263 chapels or shrines located in the necropolis that have were built in eight distinguishable groups.

The Main Church

In the center of the Necropolis on the northern edge is a church dating back to the 5th century AD. It is regarded as one of the oldest churches in Egypt, and commands a grand view of the necropolis. It is the largest of the structures to be found here.

The Chapel of the Exodus

Situated behind the group of chapels located on the central ridge in the northern part of the necropolis is the Chapel of the Exodus. It may be considered one of the oldest Christian chapels in the necropolis, with paintings attributable to the first half of the fourth century. Yet, there is very little Christian to be found here, as most of the interior is painted with scenes from the Old Testament. It takes its name from the paintings of Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt, Moses in the Sinai, the Egyptian King and his army, Noah's Ark, Adam and Eve, Daniel in the lion's den, Sadrach, Mishach, and Abednego in the furnace; the sacrifices of Abraham, Jonah in the whale, Jonah out of the whale, Rebeca at the well, Job in a chair, Job suffering, Susanna and Jeremian at the temple, Sara in prayer, a shepherd, the martyrdom of Saint Thekla, seven virgins, and the Garden of Eden. Only a few scenes touch upon Christian topics.

Sadrach, Mishach and Abednego in the furnace


Ankh Style Cross

The Chapel of Peace

On the western slope of the necropolis, near its entrance, is found the Chapel of Peace. It stands alone, and is often simply referred to as the Byzantine Tomb. Its walls are covered in Arabic, Coptic and Greek graffiti, while the formal decorations are of a pure, Byzantine style. Identified in Greek are the names: Adam, Eve, Abraham, Issac, Eirene, Daniel, Dikaiosyne, Euche, Jacob, Noah, the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, and Paul instructing Saint Thekla. The decorative theme is very similar to those found in Rome at the catacombs and in many early churches throughout Egypt and elsewhere. They may probably be attributed to the 5th and 6th centuries. One typical Egyptian scene within this chapel is a portrayal of Saints Paul and Thecla, who seem to have been very popular saints within this oasis.

Abrahham

Noah

Also within the necropolis are about five other chapels that still have the remains of good paintings, including themes such as Saints Paul and Thecla, the Sacrifice of Abraham and the Phoenix.

The Monastery of Mustafa Kashif

About two kilometers west of the Necropolis of al-Bagawat is situated the Monastery of Mustafa Kashif. It was named after a governor of the oasis during the Mamluk period, but the site has been occupied since at least Egypt's Middle Kingdom. Here, a church was built, evidenced by the remains of an apse that is still visible. One may also see the ruins of several cells constructed around the tomb of a hermit or local saint. Within the cells are inscriptions that date from the 5th or 6th century, but probably only names. The main building had as many as five floors, and the ruins are still impressive. On the depression floor below the monastery are several additional ruins.

Ain Zaaf

Ain Zaaf means "Spring of Palm Fronds". It is tucked into the base of the foothills of Gebel al-Tayr (al-Teir), about one kilometer north of the Monastery of Mustafa Kashif. Here is found a Christian burial chapel that is exactly the style of chapel also found in the Bagawat cemetery. There is also a recently excavated Christian church that the archaeologists believe could have been the church of Bishop Athanasius, who was banished to this Oasis. Though the church has no roof, and the remaining walls stand less than one meter high, it has many small rooms and there is ancient Coptic graffiti along the northwest corner.

Gebel al-Tayr

Called the Mountain of the Birds, Gebel al-Teir is situated about eight kilometers north of Qasr Kharga, the capital of this oasis. It is about two kilometers north of the Bagawat Cemetery. A visit here should not be taken without the aid of a local guide, as the route is complicated. Here is found graffiti and inscriptions dating to as early as prehistoric times. However, on the western side, a path leads to the top of the mountain through a grotto, and here, Coptic paintings, prayers and invocations dating from he fourth, fifth and tenth centuries may be found. These inscriptions, which include Demotic and Greek script, were mostly left by hermits who lived in the surrounding caves, and can be identified by a cross.

At the top of this mountain we find the Cave of Mary, obviously a sacred site during the Christian era. There is considerable graffiti, including some that predate the Christian era, but among the etchings is a painting of the Madonna and Child, along with a prayer in alternating red and yellow lines.

South of Qasr Kharga to Dush

Qasr al-Nesim

Known as the Fortress of the Breeze, this site is six kilometers south of Qasr Kharga, and then another 14 kilometers off the main road, though there is little to see here. However, archaeologists from the Egyptian Antiquities Organization believe that it is probably a Coptic Christian structure.

Shams al-Din

Located about 80 or so kilometers south of Qasr Kharga, across the road from New Baris, is an ancient settlement who's name means "Sun of the Faith. It was called "Water of Isis" in ancient times, but today it consists of a necropolis and a fourth century church which is one of the oldest in Egypt. Within the vestibule is considerable Greek graffiti also dating to the fourth century, mostly recording the passage of ancient travelers.

Just east of Shams al-Din is Gebel Tafnis and its spring, Ain Tafnis. This is a difficult location to reach, requiring about a three hour climb. Southeast of the spring amid the caves and along the northern slope of the mountain one finds a series of graffiti in Greek, Coptic and Arabic that includes inscriptions from the Byzantine era.

North of Qasr Kharga

Al-Deir

Al-Deir is located about 10.4 kilometers north of Qasr Kharga. It was built of mudbrick and sits at the end of a road just north of Gebel Umm-al-Ghanayim. This was a fortress during roman times, and there is considerable graffiti on its walls, including Coptic Christian, along with Arabic, Turkish and English. Though the fortress may have been used as a monastery, there is a necropolis and the ruins of a church to the west of the fortress. Around the fortress are the ruins of an ancient town where two building still stand. The the escarpment is the small temple that was later used as a church. Here, one finds Coptic Greek and Arabic graffiti in the sanctuary.

Ain Umm Dabadib

This site is located about 40 kilometers north of Qasr Kharga on the road to Aysut. It is an impressive site with a towering mudbrick fortress. The ruins of a church, complete with several arches, sits on the east side of the fortress. In fact, most of the church was recently still standing. Here, the apse is covered with Greek, Coptic and Arabic graffiti. Unfortunately, the church was mostly destroyed by a local looking for buried treasure just a short time ago.


References:

Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
2000 Years of Coptic Christianity Meinardus, Otto F. A. 1999 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 5113
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400 MacMullen, Ramsay 1984 Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-03642-6
Western Desert of Egypt, The Vivian, Cassandra 2000 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 527 X


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